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Natural Awakenings Chicago

Lake Trek: Saving Our Great Lakes, One Mile at a Time

Sep 28, 2011 09:30AM ● By Wendy L. Cullitan

What began as a mid-life crisis turned into a mid-life adventure, not only benefiting Loreen Niewenhuis, author of A 1,000 Mile Walk on the Beach, but also helping to preserve the Midwest’s breathtaking “third coast.”

When Niewenhuis set out to walk around the perimeter of Lake Michigan, she did not intend to become an activist, but her lengthy trek around the Great Lakes exposed her to not only long stretches of pristine beaches, but to sections of such devastation that she became more keenly aware of the need to protect our waterways.

“I stay on top of policy a lot more now. It was surprising to discover that the lake is so battered and blundered,” says Niewenhuis. “The lakes’ delicate ecosystems are being challenged unnecessarily on a daily basis. I didn’t set out to write an environmental book, but those threads are in the book because the problems are there.”

Lake is the challenge: not the trek

When Niewenhuis began her walk at Navy Pier on March 16, 2009, in Chicago, the first 72 miles took her through Chicago’s Southside, as well as through Gary and Whiting, Indiana. “The low point of the trek for me occurred in these industrialized areas, where man has contorted shorelines and put up massive industrial buildings,” she says.

Many people think that the Clean Water Act, passed in the 1970s, protects our “blue planet,” but Niewenhuis discovered many areas that not only endanger our lakes and wildlife, but threaten our health, as well. In Whiting, Indiana, for example, the BP Oil Refinery is allowed to dump toxic sludge and ammonia into the water. “It bothers me that one of the most profitable companies in the world is legally able to deposit this waste into the lake instead of storing it, so as not to cause damage to the environment,” says Niewenhuis with frustration. “BP is essentially in violation of a national law.”

Niewenhuis prepared her body for the long hike, but never expected the sights of damage she saw up close and personal to be more bothersome than the physical challenge of the trek itself. “Before I began the trek, I knew that certain areas of the Great Lakes were in danger, but now I have a more holistic view of the lakes and understand fully that the problems we face are much broader.”

Fixing a complex problem

According to Niewenhuis, this is a complex problem, with a few commonsense solutions. “First, we need to treat all ballast water from foreign ports. When large vessels cross oceans from foreign territory, they expel water into the Great Lakes and disrupt the lakes’ ecosystems. The colonization of the zebra mussel resulted because there are no mandates or regulations designed to keep foreign water life from being dumped into our lake,” she says. “Without checks and balances in place, the lake will continue to be destroyed.”

Secondly, she says, we need to halt all dumping of untreated sewage into lakes. “During heavy rains, cities often have to dump sewage into rivers and lakes, which in turn fertilize algae, which then blooms out of control. When the algae dies, dead zones are created in the lake and anaerobic bacteria—like the one that creates botulism toxin—thrive in these areas. Mussels and fish can take in the toxin and birds feeding on these food sources are often poisoned and die,” adds Niewenhuis.

Beauty all around

Even though parts of her journey showcased the harm man has caused, larger portions of her adventure were exquisite. Niewenhuis’ favorite place to walk was the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, in the northwest corner of the lower peninsula of Michigan, recently voted “The most beautiful place in America,” by Good Morning America (see tinyurl.com/3qkzqfy).

“I had been there before, but this time, I got to hike most of the 35 miles of coastline in the park. The geology is very unique. The tallest dunes—over 450 feet—anywhere in the world on fresh water are along this shore,” adds Niewenhuis. “There are living dunes there that still migrate with the winds, and perched dunes formed on top of ancient glacial moraines. The hand of the glaciers that formed the Great Lakes is clearly evident in this gorgeous stretch of shoreline. It is truly amazing.”

She was also impressed with the two largest cities on the lakeshore, Chicago and Milwaukee. “Both cities have sprawling parks and pathways along the lake, preserving the lakeshore as a wonderful recreational swath, with wide access to the water's edge.

“In addition, most of Michigan's lower peninsula's western shoreline is sandy. It is one of the longest ‘sunset shorelines’ in the nation. All along this edge, you'll find wonderful towns that embrace their relationship with the lake by having parks and beaches and marinas along the shore. Some of my favorite towns along this stretch—if I was forced to choose only four—are St. Joseph, South Haven, Saugatuck and Petoskey.”

What you can do to save the Great Lakes

Niewenhuis has the following suggestions to help preserve the Great Lakes.

1) Write your state representative and ask them to support the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GreatLakesRestoration.us). This is the largest investment being made in our Great Lakes in two decades and provides a five-year plan to fund programs to improve the health of our lakes.

2) Join the Alliance for the Great Lakes (GreatLakes.org). This organization provides opportunities on the grassroots level through beach cleanups. They also provide curriculum for teachers to educate our youth and work with policymakers to protect the lakes.

3) Enjoy the lakes and support their parks… and please, don’t dump trash into lake!

Niewenhuis has plans for another adventure next year (visit LakeTrek.com for details). She plans to take another 1,000-mile walk in the Great Lakes region that will touch all five lakes, saying, “I have become captivated with this freshwater system and how important it is to the nation and the world, and would like to explore it more fully. This is my favorite place in the world.”


Wendy L. Cullitan, Principal of Wordsmith Communications, is an award-winning writer, editor and marketing consultant. Cullitan finds balance in her life through an avid personal yoga practice as well as through giving private yoga sessions and teaching at multiple studios on the North Shore. Visit her website at WordsmithCommunication.net or contact her at [email protected] or 847-337-4461.

Lake Trek Statistics
Number of miles total: 1,019
Days on trek: 64 days
Average miles per day: 16 miles
Longest day: 25 miles
Shortest day: 5 miles
Percent of trek walked alone: 80 percent
Longest Segment: 10 days to hike 161 miles
Shortest Segment: 3 days to walk 50 miles